Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.49

Christopher Stray (ed.), Sophocles' Jebb: A Life in Letters. Cambridge Classical Journal supplement, 38.   Cambridge:  Cambridge Philological Society, 2013.  Pp. ix, 304.  ISBN 9780956838131.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by P. J. Finglass, University of Nottingham (

'The first play of my Sophocles is to be published in a week or so. It is not my fault that it has not been ready long ago. I do not look forward to its appearance with either hope or anxiety. Nothing is staked upon it; it pretends to be nothing more than a school and college book, and if it is thought useful in that character, it will have fulfilled its purpose' (1867, p. 47). With these words Richard Jebb, a young man still in his mid-twenties, looks forward to the imminent publication of his first edition of a play by Sophocles, his Electra. The lasting success of his major edition with commentary of all seven surviving plays of Sophocles has ensured the survival of his name; and it is natural that this should lead to curiosity about the man and his life. Such curiosity has led Christopher Stray to publish this fascinating collection of letters, which will be an essential resource for anybody interested in Jebb or in British academia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

From around three thousand letters discovered in 2002, Stray has culled almost two hundred and seventy-five; the addition of certain already published letters which seemed too important to be left out of a collection of this kind brings the total up to that number. That very figure of two hundred and seventy-five inspires confidence in the editor's judgment and restraint; it must have been tempting to bring it up to a round three hundred. The letters, arrayed with full and helpful annotations by the editor, are preceded by a short (six page) Introduction setting out the circumstances of their discovery and a very brief account of Jebb's life and continuing importance. After the letters come a brief Afterword, a very useful annotated bibliography of Jebb's works, and an index.

Although Stray's title draws attention to Jebb's most famous work of scholarship, his edition of Sophocles, the letters do not shed as much light on that edition as we might have hoped; there is little here about Jebb's creative processes, for example. But there is some critical assessment of his achievement; in particular, it is interesting to see that the relationship between Jebb's edition and that of his elder contemporary, Lewis Campbell, was a matter of comment even before the former work had begun to see publication. So Samuel Butcher tells Jebb, 'I am delighted that you are resolved to take the Sophocles at once in hand. Every day convinces me more of the need there is for a commentary better than Campbell's. I have just been working through a play with that very unsuggestive guide. And both I and my men desired you in his stead' (1882, pp. 101–2). Once the first volume of the editio maior (Oedipus Tyrannus) is out, Benjamin Jowett writes to say 'you have the advantage over Campbell of perfect clearness and grammatical accuracy' (1884, p. 128). This is a debate to which later scholars have returned, not always on Jebb's side. According to Eduard Fraenkel, 'Campbell è totalmente oscurato dalla fama di Jebb, ma è molto più intelligente e più profondo';1 while Campbell's St Andrews colleague, Elizabeth Craik, took the view that '[his] edition is superior to Jebb's on a number of important counts . . . On such . . . criteria as literary and stylistic appreciation, attention to dramatic and staging questions, translation which is effective and idiomatic (rather than a mere crib), Campbell is again more perceptive than Jebb. And on matters of introduction and background to the plays, Campbell though shorter and less comprehensive is equally instructive.'2 A modern synkrisis of the two editions might be an instructive exercise.

Some of the most interesting letters are between Jebb and Gilbert Murray, a correspondence which provides, in Stray's words, 'a record of mutual nervousness, the older man courteously disapproving, the younger offering clumsy but at times effective flattery' (p. 165). 'I suppose we belong,' writes Jebb to Murray, 'in some sense, to rather different schools. The brilliant and daring Wilamowitz (in whom, as I gather, you place unreserved confidence), appears to me rather too fond of hypotheses which he propounds as ascertained facts, and rather too haughtily negligent of all opinions except his own, to be always a safe guide' (1897, p. 218). From our perspective, Murray may seem closer to Jebb himself than to Wilamowitz; it is remarkable to see Jebb using his greater contemporary as a means of distinguishing himself from the successor to his Glasgow chair.

The highlights of such a collection are inevitably miscellaneous. A letter to a relative that concludes 'in short, Uncle, I could never tell you all the books I like' (1847, p. 10) suggests a charmingly earnest seven-year-old; but the boy's desire for broad learning can be observed in the man, when he consults a geologist on a point of Sophoclean interpretation (1885, p. 137). Jane Harrison (1888, pp. 152–3) thanks Jebb for writing a testimonial on her behalf; Jebb puts himself on the right side of history in his support for women students at the University of Cambridge (1873/4, p. 63), and celebrates their admission to University examinations with a pretty (English) poem (1881, p. 91). Arthur Sidgwick shows an engaging modesty when he tells Jebb 'I quite recognise that I do not come into the first rank in Oxford; but there is both work to do, and need of second rank men: there is in short room here for people of the only stamp I can aspire to, as much as for the few' (1889, p. 163). And one correspondent begins his letter with the memorable sentence 'My dear Mr Jebb, I am delighted to give you all the information on the subject of tricycles that I can' (1898, p. 228).

Part of the pleasure of perusing a work of this kind is to note how attitudes and customs have changed somewhat over the course of the intervening decades. So modern day University admissions tutors in Classics might smile at Jebb's lament that his Greek class at Glasgow, with 444 members, 'has not grown at the same rate as some others'; 'Greek has', he concludes 'a very precarious hold on the schools of Scotland' (1877, p. 83). Yet in these schools, Jebb remains firm is his view that 'boys in VIth and Vth forms ought of course to be learning something of textual criticism' (1882, p. 100). Those were the days! I wonder how many of today's members of the House of Commons, not to speak of the general public, would agree with Richard Jebb M.P. when he says that this body is both 'interesting and instructive: it enlarges my views of life in so many ways' (1892, p. 188)? And as for his remark 'I fancy that I had about the last of the good days for a Professor in Scotland. The democracy there has all sorts of new-fangled ideas about Universities, and I am afraid they will end by spoiling the old article without getting anything good in its place' (1890, p. 175) – well, let's leave that for our Scottish colleagues to judge.

An aspect of Jebb's character that emerges very clearly from the volume is what Stray calls his 'morbid sensitivity to criticism' (p. 2). Since Jebb's reputation for scholarly excellence is so high, it is almost comical to observe his remarkably thin skin when it came to comments about his published work; as J. E. B. Mayor remarked in a letter of condolence to his widow, 'owing to his nerves being delicately strung, he suffered more than most of us in the rough of life' (1905, p. 269). A reply to Jebb from the editor of the Classical Review indicates that he had written to complain about the tone and content of a critical article by A. E. Housman (1898, pp. 224–5); by this time Jebb's entire Sophocles edition was published, and one might have thought that he would be past caring about such things. Earlier, Walter Headlam had desperately attempted to convince him that a review of his Philoctetes was intended without malice (1891, pp. 185–6). In taking such criticisms so seriously, Jebb was ignoring the advice he had received some years before from the Master of Balliol: 'I have never answered any attack or if I could help it read any attack . . . It is better to possess one's soul in patience and go on with one's work. The world is not in the long run unjust: it recognises the person who is attacked and sometimes gives him a compensation more than he deserves. No one but a fool judges a man by the representations of his enemies' (1884, p. 129). Any author tempted to reply to a critical notice on the Bryn Mawr Classical Review would do well to take Jowett's words to heart. If as a result we were to see fewer 'X on Y on X' responses, that would be one more reason among many to thank Christopher Stray for this most welcome product of patient scholarship.3


1.   E. Fraenkel, Due seminari romani di Eduard Fraenkel, ed. L. E. Rossi (Sussidi Eruditi 28: Rome, 1977) 44.
2.   E. M. Craik, 'Lewis Campbell', in H. D. Jocelyn (ed.), Aspects of Nineteenth-century British Classical Scholarship (Liverpool Classical Papers 5: Liverpool, 1996) 81–8, at 85.
3.   The edition is accurately printed and free from obvious errors; note however that Dilts's edition of Demosthenes, referred to as an ongoing project at p. 230 n. 198, saw its fourth and final volume in 2009.

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